Why does Coleridge dispute Wordsworth’s assertion that the very language of men, constitutes the language of poetry?

Wordsworth and Coleridge came together early in life. It was in 1796, that they were frequently together, and out of their mutual discussion arose the various theories which Wordsworth embodied in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and which he tried to put into practice in the poems. Coleridge claimed credit for these theories and said they were, “half the child of his brain.” But later on, his views underwent a change, he no longer agreed with Wordsworth’s theories, and so criticised them in Chapter XVII and XVIII of the Biographia Literaria. Coleridge’s criticism is the last word on the subject, it has not been improved upon upto date.

Wordsworth’s Views
1. Reasons for His Choice of Rustic Life : In his Preface, Wordsworth made three important statements all of which have been objects of Coleridge’s censure. First of all, Wordsworth writes that he chose low and rustic life, because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended and are more durable; and lastly, ‘because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.’
2.   Choice of Rustic Language : Secondly, that, “The language too of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appears to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best
of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse being less under the action of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.”
3.   Diction of Poetry : Thirdly, he made a number of statements regarding the language and diction of poetry. Of these, Coleridge controverts the following parts : “a selection of the real language of men”; “the language of these men (i. e. men in low and rustic life) I propose to myself to imitate, and as far as possible to adopt the very language of men”; and “between the language of prose and that of metrical composition there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference.”
Coleridge’s Criticism
As regards the first statement, the choice of rustic characters and life, Coleridge points out, first, that not all Wordsworth’s characters are chosen from low or rustic life. Characters in the poems like Ruth, Michael, The Brothers, are not low and rustic in the usual acceptance of these words. Secondly, their language and sentiments do not necessarily arise from their abode or occupation. They are attributable to causes which would result in similar sentiments and language, even if these characters were living in a different place and carrying on different occupations. These causes are primarily two (a) independence which raises a man above servility; and frugal life and industrious domestic life, and (b) a solid religious education which makes a man well-versed in the Bible and other holy books to the exclusion of other books. The admirable qualities we notice in the language and sentiments of Wordsworth’s characters result from these two causes, and not from their rural life and occupation, or their contemplation of nature. Even if they lived in the city, away from Nature. They would have similar sentiments and similar language, if they were subject to the two causes mentioned by Wordsworth. In the opinion of Coleridge, a man will not be benefitted from life in rural solitudes, unless he has (a) natural sensibility, and (b) suitable education. In the absence of these advantages in rural conditions the maid hardens and a man grows “selfish, sensual, gross, and hard-hearted.” Coleridge agrees with Aristotle’s view that the characters of poetry must be universal and typical. They must represent some particular class, as well as general human nature. He writes, “poetry is essentially ideal, that it avoids and excludes all accident: that its apparent individualities of rank, character or occupation must be representatives of a class; and that the persons of poetry must be clothed with generic attributes, with the common attributes of the class; not with such as one gifted individual might possibly possess, but such as from his situation it is most probably beforehand that he would possess.” Wordsworth’s characters are representatives in this sense.
As regards the second statement of Wordsworth, Coleridge objects to the view that the best of language is derived from the objects with which the rustics hourly communicate. First, communication with an object implies reflection on it, and the richness of vocabulary arises from such reflection. Now the rural conditions of life do not require any reflection, hence the vocabulary of the rustic is poor. They can express only the barest facts of nature, and not the ideas and thoughts               universal laws which result from reflection on such facts. Secondly, the best part of a man’s language does not result merely from communication with nature, but from education, from the mind’s dwelling on noble thoughts and ideals of the master minds of humanity. Whatever noble and poetic phrases, words and arrangement of words the rustics use, are derived not from nature, but from repeated listening to The Bible and to the sermons of noble and inspired preachers.
Coleridge on Poetic Diction
Coming then to a detailed consideration of Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction, he takes up his statements, one by one, and demonstrates that his views are not justified. Wordsworth asserts that the language of poetry is “a selection of the real language of man or the very language of man; and that there was no essential difference between the language of prose and that of poetry.” Coleridge reports that “every man’s language, varies according to the extent of his knowledge, the activity of his faculties and the depth or quickness of his feelings.” Every man’s language has, first, its individual peculiarities; secondly, the properties common to the class to which he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use. “No two men of the same class or of different classes speak alike, although both use words and phrases common to them all, because in the one case their natures are different and in the other their classes are different.”
This applies much to the language of rustics, as to that of townsmen. In both cases the language varies from person to person, class to class, and place to place. Which of these varieties of language, asks Coleridge, is ‘the real language of men.’ Each, he re plies, has to be purged of its uncommon or accidental features (such as those picked up from family, profession, or locality) before it can become the ordinary (i. e. generally spoken) language of men ‘Omit the particularities of each, and the result ofcourse must be common to all. And assuredly the commissions and changes to be made in the language and rustics, before it could be transferred to any species of poem, except the drama or other professed imitation, are at least as numerous and weighty as would be required in adapting to the same purpose the ordinary language of tradesmen and manufacturers.’ “Such a language alone has a universal appeal and is, therefore, the language of poetry.” A language so generalised, so selected, and also so purified of what is gross and vulgar will differ in no way from the language of any other man of commonsense.” Coleridge objects to Wordsworth’s use of the words ‘very’ or ‘real’ and suggests that ‘ordinary’ or ‘generally’ aught to have been used. Wordsworth’s addition of the words “in a state of excitement,” is meaningless, says Coleridge, for emotional excitement may result in a more concentrated expression, but it cannot create a noble and richer vocabulary.
To Wordsworth’s contention that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and that of prose, Coleridge replies that there is, and there ought to be, an essential difference between the language of prose and that of poetry. The language of poetry differs from that of prose in the same way in which the language of prose differs, and ought to differ, from language of conversion, and as reading differs from talking. Coleridge gives a number of reasons in support of his view. First, language is both a matter of words, and the arrangement of those words. Now words both in prose and poetry may be the same, but their arrangement is different. This difference arises from the fact that poetry uses metre, and metre requires a different arrangement of words. As Coleridge has already shown, metre is not mere superficial decoration, but an essential, organic part of a poem. Hence there is bound to be an ‘essential difference between the language, i. e. the arrangement of words, of poetry and of prose. There is the difference even in those poems of Wordsworth which are considered most Words worthian. In fact, metre medicates the whole atmosphere and so, even the metaphors and similes used by a poet are different in quality and frequency from those of prose.
Further, it cannot be demonstrated that the language of prose and poetry are identical, and so convertible. There may be certain lines or even passages which can be used both in prose and poetry, but not all the lines or passages can be used thus. There are passages which will suit the one, and not the other.
Coleridge’s devotion of Wordsworth’s theory remains even now one of the finest examples of literary criticism. His essay on Wordsworth has been regarded by Thomas M. Raysor as ‘the finest critical essay in English literature.’

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